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  1. Florida Politics

Bousquet: Democratic Senate hopefuls searching for voters

FERNANDINA BEACH — In the searing heat of August, with the election a year away, a wide-open primary for one of Florida's U.S. Senate seats seems like the last thing on voters' minds.

But candidates have to go where they can find crowds. On Saturday, three Democratic Senate candidates traveled to Florida's historic and very Republican northeast corner of Fernandina Beach, where Gov. Rick Scott beat Charlie Crist by a 3-to-1 ratio last fall.

Nassau County Democrats held their annual "Low Country Boil" fundraiser, and more than 100 people filled a country club dining room to meet U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and two lesser-known opponents: Pam Keith, a lawyer and Navy veteran, and Lateresa Jones, who calls herself a women's rights advocate. A fourth candidate, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, wasn't there.

"I didn't come here to be nice," said Jones, who sounded as if she was on a low boil. She described herself as the granddaughter of slaves and promised to give Washington "an a-- whuppin'."

Jones, 51, first filed as a Republican, and Miami-Dade voting records say she's still a registered Republican, so her candidacy could face a legal obstacle. State law prohibits candidates from changing parties within 365 days of the election qualifying period.

Keith, 46, of Jupiter is the daughter of diplomats. She grew up overseas, went to law school and became a Navy judge advocate and a labor lawyer for Florida Power & Light.

Despite being a new face with an impressive resume, she knows voters wonder why she'd want to begin her political career at the top of the ladder in the world's most exclusive political club.

"Those are the issues I know the best," Keith said. "I've been in the military. I've worn the uniform. … I work for an energy company. I know something about our energy policy."

She walked around the room, spoke a little Spanish, and people liked her passion, cheering when she blasted the Keystone oil pipeline. Keith said the secret to success in 2016 is the President Barack Obama playbook: "Energize our base."

The boyish-looking Murphy is 32, a Keys native in his second term in Congress. He wears the mantle of early frontrunner, having raised $2.7 million.

Many Democrats don't yet know him, but he has a handy calling card as the guy who ousted tea party favorite Allen West in 2012.

West-bashing still works.

"His answer to every question was no. He cared more about getting a good headline than he did about helping everyday Floridians," Murphy said. "Turn on Fox News, or turn on C-Span. The Senate is full of Allen Wests."

Using a text as a guide, Murphy struck familiar themes: Washington is broken, the middle class is hurting, Gov. Scott suppresses the vote and a woman's right to choose is "non-negotiable."

He cast himself as a problem solver who would help pass immigration reform. Murphy spoke of the Boy Scout troop in his district that works to combat gang violence, and he got loud cheers for calling for "a meaningful increase in the minimum wage."

The 2016 election may seem like an eternity from now, but by this time next summer, early voting will begin for the primaries to nominate successors to Sen. Marco Rubio.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow him @stevebousquet.

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